For ten days, Flemish teachers Evelien and Greet submerged themselves in the educational culture of Suriname for SchoolLinks. Why? To put the international aspirations of their secondary school Mater Dei into practice with a visit to their partner school ‘Openbare Nijverheidsschool’ in the capital of Suriname, Paramaribo. Inspiration assured: “The Flanders education system is used as a waterfall: aim high in the beginning, lower your expectations as you progress. In Suriname, teachers want their students to climb up to their potential during their secondary education.”
The schoollink between the Belgian and Surinamese schools is only in its initial phase, but expectations are high on both sides: “We want our students to discover the differences, but mostly the similarities between the lives of youngsters in Belgium and elsewhere”, says Greet.
A core team of teachers of Mater Dei set off on a search for a faraway school that teaches subjects similar to their own Youth and Disability Care in the fifth year of secondary technical schooling. “That’s how we ended up in the capital of Suriname, at the door of the Openbare Nijverheidsschool. We’re going to build a partnership with the Surinamese students of Care and Wellbeing on topics such as geriatric care, childcare, psychology, and pedagogy. The shared Dutch language is a very welcome perk, because that lowers the threshold for both our students and ourselves. Language connects, you understand each other’s jokes better.”
Example of respect
This first visit of the Belgian teachers to their Surinamese colleagues has laid a strong foundation for cooperation for the coming years. Greet and Evelien experienced a typical Surinamese school day, learnt to understand the strengths and challenges of the education system, and how classes and internships are organised.
“This is how we can contribute to the broadening of our school’s horizon. It’s part of our school’s DNA to keep growing”, Evelien says. “For example, a principal here told us that technical education can be way for youngsters to ‘climb up’ to a good degree and work. In contrast, the Belgian education system is used as a waterfall: students start secondary school in a field of study considered difficult and as they progress they can switch to an ‘easier’ field.”
Suriname is an inspirational society for Belgian schools for yet another reason. “The economic situation in Suriname is distressing, people can barely get by. And still, the Surinamese people stay positive without looking for a scapegoat. If this were to happen in Belgium, polarisation and frustration would take over the society”, Evelien thinks. Greet concurs: “Suriname sets the example for respecting other ethnicities and religions. A truly bonding society.”
Greet and Evelien are sure the schoollink will not be limited to their students of Youth and Disability Care. The schoollink will leave its mark on all the general subjects of the students in their fourth and fifth year of technical education. “We want to include as many teachers and students as possible in the schoollink”, Greet intends. During history lessons, the students will examine the impact of exploration and slavery on today’s Suriname, in cooking classes they will prepare a typical Surinamese dish. When considering the topic ‘diversity’ in Social Sciences, students will debate prejudices versus reality through contact with their fellow students in the partner school.
“In ICT class, our students made and sent a first short film introducing themselves to their Surinamese peers, and they quickly got one back in response. That already set the tone for what I’m sure will be a very interesting exchange”, Evelien predicts.
Greet and Evelien did not spend their whole week in Suriname in the classroom. They also enjoyed some well-deserved free time. Their Surinamese host Ulrike, who is also a teacher at the partner school, and her husband Roël made sure they had a roof over their heads as well as a full agenda. “It was my first time experiencing a new culture firsthand. It was very intense. We clicked with people who, at first sight, are different from us”, Greet says.
“That’s not very difficult when your hosts are happy, extraverted and relaxed people like ours were”, Evelien adds. “We went to the theatre together, visited plantations, and celebrated the end of our week on the banks of the Suriname river. We really got to know each other and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.”
With the SchoolLinks programme, VVOB matches schools in Flanders with schools in the South. This partnership can take different forms: from swapping knowhow, to sending letters and exchange programmes for teachers. The main goal is not to raise funds, but to exchange information that is valuable to both schools.